Mental health cuts pile pressure on 999 ambulance service, union rep warns

An East of England Ambulance Service control room, which handles 999 calls. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

An East of England Ambulance Service control room, which handles 999 calls. Picture: CONTRIBUTED - Credit: Archant

Blue light workers in Suffolk and Essex are picking up the pieces from ‘devastating’ cuts to mental health services, it has been claimed.

Chris Jenkinson, eastern regional secretary at UNISON, issued his warning after figures uncovered by this newspaper reveal the burden placed on the East of England Ambulance Service by people who phone for help more than five times a month.

During the first nine months of last year, the trust handled 277,799 emergency calls by 3,584 so-called frequent callers in Essex, and was contacted 10,340 times by 1,340 persistent callers across Suffolk, according to statistics released following a Freedom of Information request.

Mr Jenkinson said many of these repeat callers would be mentally unwell people who were phoning 999 as a last resort because they were unable to get the support they needed in the community due to austerity measures.

“It’s a improper use of those services and that resource and that’s actually quite an expensive resource so it doesn’t make economic sense,” he added. “You close down day centres and therapy groups, you cut psychiatric community-based services out, then we end up with the police and ambulance services attending these calls on a regular basis.

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“We know mental health services are being absolutely devastated, more so than any other services within the care system, and this is the unfortunate consequence of it all.”

One household in Clacton-on-Sea phoned 999 for an ambulance 295 times between January and September this year, including 85 times in one month.

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Clacton North councillor Andy Wood, who sits on Essex County Council’s Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee, said the mental health crisis helpline for people in his constituency was difficult to access, and added trying to get a GP appointment was a “nightmare”.

“We are struggling in Tendring,” Mr Wood added. “I believe we have been neglected down here because we are at the bottom of the line.”

Paul Vinters, senior Emergency Operations Centre manager at the East of England Ambulance Service, said the trust worked with partners to investigate the root cause for frequents calls and provide patients with the care they needed, which in many cases was not an ambulance.

‘Mental health a top priority for government’, says Department of Health

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: “Mental health is a top priority for this Government which is why we’re investing an extra £1billion by 2020 in mental health services.

“We know early intervention is key in supporting people with mental health problems before they present with crisis. That is why we launched the first waiting times standards for mental health — the first government to do so.

“For those experiencing a mental health crisis, it is vital they have access to swift and effective treatment and the ambulance service plays a vital role in ensuring they receive the care they need quickly and in the most appropriate setting.”

A spokeswoman from Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT) said: “One of our over-arching aims is to prevent the need for crisis care, so we are focusing on extending and improving services which help people keep well for longer and therefore avoid escalation, wherever we can.

“Our home treatment teams in east and west Suffolk provide intensive community support to people in their homes, or other community placements, to avoid the need for hospital admission.

“We also provide targeted support to people with specific mental health conditions – for example our dementia intensive support teams work with people who have dementia and are experiencing increased difficulties or associated behavioural disturbances.

“Our access and assessment team in Suffolk provide emergency assessments 24/7, for people experiencing mental health crisis. Advice and telephone support is also provided.

“In addition, our community teams also use the Flexible Assertive Community Treatment (FACT) model to increase support to people where their mental health needs require this step-up response.

“Mental health is a system-wide issue and NSFT already works closely with partner organisations, including the police, ambulance service, GPs and social care to improve the quality of care we all deliver to all.

“For example, we provide specialist mental health advice and consultation to police officers in Suffolk in their control room, and a mental health practitioner can provide support to people who need help in the community in a triage car.”

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